Local thinktanks are natural allies in ‘Doing Development Differently’ so why not support them better?

Just been reading a rather good paper by Guy Lodge and Will Paxton making the case for supporting  thinktanks in Africa thinktanksdeveloping countries. They’ve been doing just that for several years, building on their experience in the UK at IPPR and No. 10 Downing Street respectively, hence the paper. They both now work at Kivu International.

The starting point is that thinktanks are natural allies in the effort to ‘Do Development Differently’: ‘Think tanks are often better placed to influence policy than traditional civil society organisations (CSOs), while their research tends to be more politically informed than academic research. Yet CSOs and academic institutions tend to be more prominent on donor radars.’

Navigating the unpredictable rapids of complexity means you want lots of agile rafts, as well as (or instead of) supertankers like DFID (or Oxfam) or less attuned northern thinktanks. Good local thinktanks could be a better fit, not least because:

‘Unlike outsiders they don’t need elaborate theories of change or Political Economy Analysis (PEAs) to understand how the internal power dynamics operate in their country. They have the local knowledge to understand how decisions are made, what formal and informal processes matter and how the patronage networks which may exist thinktanks in Argentinawill help or hinder the prospects of achieving change. This kind of politically savvy thinking is – or is potentially – second nature to them. Indeed, often think tanks will have people who have worked in government and who understand the realities of policy making and politics.’

The authors identify five distinct ways in which think tanks seek to exert influence:

‘1. Direct policy influence: where a think tank advocates for the implementation of a specific proposal which is subsequently adopted by government.

  1. Indirect policy influence: where a think tank proposal shifts policy, but only as part of a messy and complicated process where a range of different interests all shape a change in policy direction.
  2. Influence the broader climate of ideas: this is often where they can have most impact, where they reframe a policy debate around new ideas.
  3. Informing public debate on key issues: through their communication and dissemination work they can play an important role informing public debate.
  4. Hold governments accountable: for example, by monitoring policy implementation or providing evidence to show policies are not achieving results.’

Local thinktanks use their local savvy to match these different ways of working to their political environments: if you are in Rwanda, you follow an insider track; if you’re in more democratic, noisy Zambia, you do more in public.

The paper is basically a pitch to donors, who, the authors argue, are putting too little money in, and in the wrong ways. Since thinktanks need a functioning government to engage with, the most promising countries are low/middle income but stable (i.e. not fragile/conflict states). They need money (relying on domestic funding too often comes with big political strings attached), but also a change in attitude.

‘Think tanks [often] have – or aspire to have – strong academic cultures. Here a familiar problem is placing a India thinktankspremium on academic rigour (often encouraged by donor funding) over carrying out policy-oriented and politically savvy research. This often leads them to use inappropriate methods which don’t fit with skill-sets and the timelines needed to influence policymakers. Indeed, a desire to demonstrate academic credibility can mean that think tanks inadvertently neglect to use their local knowledge and political insights, in favour of carrying out academic research.’

That rings true – there’s maybe a bit of isomorphic mimicry going on here, with thinktanks jumping through lots of methodological hoops (think RCTs) that don’t play to their strengths.

The authors argue for ‘seeding’ the policy ecosystem by core funding lots of new thinktanks, including the more experimental/innovative variety (higher risk, from a donor point of view, but potentially more influential). They identify three emerging roles for such experimentation:

‘• Political insights: explicitly developing the expertise and knowledge of local political context, for example through carrying out ‘political and power’ assessments on any given issue, and for instance developing an expertise in polling.

  • Elite convening: developing a function which not only facilitates debate and discussion between key interest groups but which looks to identify collective interests and coordinate actions across these different stakeholders to help bring about policy change. This would also entail think tanks building partnerships with specific and potentially powerful interests, such as the church, which carry more weight than themselves.
  • Campaigns and alliances: essentially this would mean engaging in more bottom-up approaches to policy influence, whereby think tanks leveraged the power of citizens and communities to press the case for reform.’

All seems very sensible – I’d be interested in hearing from donors/thinktanks about whether this makes sense/what’s missing, and from those (looking at you IDRC) who’ve already been doing this for years.

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8 Responses to “Local thinktanks are natural allies in ‘Doing Development Differently’ so why not support them better?”
  1. Yes absolutely, developing and emerging country TTs can, and have been, hugely effective at informing national (and regional and international) policy and practice. Most evaluations of programmes seeking to strengthen them have found that providing core funding is essential to enable them to develop appropriate strategies and systems to be able to do this. See for example this evaluation of the first phase of the Think Tank Initiative: https://www.odi.org/publications/7852-final-report-external-evaluation-think-tank-initiative. A recent self-evaluation exercise with Think Tanks in Indonesia being supported by the Knowledge Sector Initiative identified core funding as being by far the most useful contribution to helping them to build their own capacity. Sadly despite this convincing evidence few donors are prepared to do this. The more evidence to persuade them to change their mind the better!

  2. Duncan, thanks for this great piece. As a funder of Southern think tanks both directly and through Think Tank Initiative, I am a big believer in core, flexible funding. I am also a big believer in think tanks getting more creative about how to use flexibility for influence. Both funders and think tanks have an opportunity to escape the project funding mindset. For donors the project mindset leads to starting with the wrong question: “who can do this research project I have in mind?” This misses the chance to ask a much more important question of “who is well positioned to produce research of relevance to a place or problem I care about, and also get that research into the policy process?” For think tanks the project mindset forces them to make the wrong case for impact: “we produced this paper then had an event and blog to disseminate it.” This misses the chance to make a much more important case of “given what we see in our context, we think a given body of research is critical for a certain set of policy actors at this time.” Only flexible support allows think tanks to be responsive to their policy contexts, and therefore influential in it. Here are some additional thoughts on this from me https://www.hewlett.org/6-ways-think-tanks-can-overcome-angst-about-impact/. Thanks for raising this important issue, and inviting funders to raise the bar on how they support think tanks. Happy to be your ally in that fight!

  3. Glad you were able to review Duncan (full disclosure: TTI co-funded this paper with the RSA). Lots of insights into what the Think Tank Initiative has learned about supporting southern policy research organizations on our website: http://www.thinktankinitiative.org/blog. Of note, there is increasing competition for local think tanks in many southern countries from the likes of big “multinational” think tanks like Brookings and even arms of for-profit consulting firms like McKinsey. Local policy research organizations still have many advantages however, and with the SDG agenda looming large, they continue to be good and effective partners and worthy of support in their own right. See some of my thoughts here: https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2017/06/why-think-tanks

  4. Think tanks in developing countries (which are not all the same by the way) have been doing this for years (should point out that while the modern term is American, there was a Think Tank (in all its functions) in Peru in the late 1700s). The challenge is to make Think Tank communities sustainable at the national level. Their dependence on foreign aid makes them cling to the world of international development, aid agencies, development Think Tanks and iNGOs and their agendas – when they rather engage with their peers at IPPR, Brookings and the like to champion their own local (political) agendas.

    We should not fear the strings that local funding will come with. As long as there are many sources and think tanks are increasingly transparent (thanks to some degree to Transparify’s efforts) they will manage. There is no such thing as a neutral Think Tank, anyway. Not even endowment guarantees that. Local funders know. Foreign funders (who often also fund Think Tanks at home) should be comfortable with this. It is not less political that funding an iNGO to campaign against human rights violations.

    One reason why Think Tanks in the US or Britain are so dynamic and exiting to work in (and why they produce so much – and we could criticise them, sure, but the alternative we have in most developing countries: medium to low quality research, a few publications a month, sporadic public events, etc, is by no means better) is politically motivated domestic funding.

    Domestic funding is part of the trigger for that dynamism. It will probably make it harder for Think Tanks to get funds at first. But it will make them up their game. They have the skills. But they, sometimes, lack the motivation. It may spark the creativity that Sarah Lucas calla for.

    I think the now decommissioned Think Tank Fund run by OSF in Europe got it just about right. (Unfortunate the context this has happened in.) Funds, but not too much, and not or too long, but support, lots of it, for the long run, and encouragement to take the innitiative, seek out opportunities, develop their own networks, etc.

  5. Dear Duncan Green,
    I found your blog very inspiring and this turned weeks ago something off my head. I got on it by true luck after receiving a re-tweet on a link and since, I can’t stop reading your contributions to switch and re-switch something in my head. Reading one of your quote from an English philosopher , John Stuart Mill, saying <> has another effect on me: Why at over fifty and somewhat successful in business here in Oxford UK, and proud of what I did for more tan 2 decades now, I cannot build the ”one” that can help the ”ninety-nine” to change their agenda in my origin country in Africa by gathering forces there and here to setup a non partisan Think Tank to help frame policy agenda of active political organization that will inevitably be involve in the transition that my country will go through. Reading Sarah Lucas input and going through her website reassure me we may not be left alone. Reading Andrew Hurst contribution and discovering the TTI through him convince me some groups are out there that we can learn a lot of things from. How can I engage conversation to complete what is ticking in my head ? Thanks again and please keep this ”ON”

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